Whenever you meet with anyone in Hollywood, you are pitching. This is true even in a “general meeting,” i.e. a meeting not about any specific project, because you are always pitching yourself.

So the basic rules of dating apply: Shower, wear deodorant, brush your hair, be sober, be on time, and be polite.

I had no idea what to wear to meetings when I first got to Los Angeles. For a writer, the uniform is an expensive pair of jeans, a hip T-shirt and really hip shoes. Guys sometimes wear baseball caps—dealer’s choice. As a woman, I finally figured out I needed a decent handbag, because female executives pay attention. I know this sounds terribly superficial, but it is the most image-conscious industry in the world. I consider not covering up my gray hair a career hazard.

When you’re in the waiting room, don’t take any phone calls. When the assistant offers you a drink, always ask for water. Coffee is more work for them and can end up spilled.

Beyond those basics, the first rule, and probably the most important, is: Know who you are meeting with and what they have done. Take the time to look them up on the internet, scan their credits, read an interview or two they’ve given. If you haven’t seen any of their TV shows or movies, try to watch their most recent credit. It makes a huge difference when you can walk into a meeting and lead with a compliment. Or better yet, a question: “Wow, Jurassic World blew my mind. What percentage of that was green screen?” First off, you are acknowledging right off the bat the accomplishments of the person you’re meeting. You’re showing interest. And you’re showing that you’re a smart, thoughtful person who is curious about the process.

A really big mistake I’ve made—more than once, I’m ashamed to say—is trashing a movie or TV show and then finding out after the meeting that the person I was talking to actually was involved in it. Don’t do that. To be on the safe side, don’t trash anything in a meeting—it makes you sound negative and trite. You can be critical and thoughtful, but you want to leave the other person with the impression that you won’t be a hothead when they give you notes in the future.

In the beginning of the meeting, it’s always a good idea to get the other party to speak more than you do. Ask them questions about their work, their projects, where they’re from, how they got into the movie business. For one: Let’s face it, we all love to talk about ourselves. But also remember that this is basically a blind date. You are looking to spark a connection on any level. So if the person happens to love baseball or Maui or rice pudding, and you do, too—bang! Love connection. Run with it. This is not off-topic. Nothing is off-topic in a Hollywood meeting. (Although you may want to hold off on your sexual and drug history. But maybe not.) The goal of these meetings is to leave an impression on the other person. They meet with about eight of you a day. That’s potentially 40 a week. Whether you’re straight out of film school or have just sold a script after working in production for years, whoever you are, leave them with a memory. I ran into a producer years after I met him and all he could remember was that my father is a rabbi. Why that, I have no idea. But it stayed with him.

That leads me to my next point: When it’s your turn to talk, have a go-to spiel—a funny, ironic, personal story you tell in meetings to engage the other person. The trick is to make it sound as if it’s the first time it’s flying out of your mouth, like its special just for them. (Remember the dating metaphor.) Think about how awkward it will be when they ask you why you want to make movies and you just sit there scratching your head. Have that answer ready.

The conversation is a ping-pong game. So if the other party gets interested in something you said and it leads you down a side alley, go with it. Don’t try to get back to what you were saying before, so that you can steamroll through it.

Another little trick: Scan their coffee table books and bookshelves. See if there’s a title you recognize or even one that intrigues you. Ask about it. Sometimes it’s a project they’re developing. Even if it’s just a book they love but lost to another producer, it’s still worth talking about. Occasionally, and this is gold when it happens, a general meeting becomes a specific project meeting. I’ve had that happen only once in my 14 years of doing this. The executive and I stumbled onto an idea for a TV show in the room, called the producer, pitched it to him and raced into network offices just before they closed their doors to sell it as a pitch. That was my first TV pilot experience. I had no idea what I was doing and let the executive coach me every step of the way.

That’s my next piece of advice, not just for meetings but for life: Stay humble. A lot of people think arrogance and brash confidence win the day in Hollywood. I have found it to be the opposite. Stay flexible. Be open to feedback. Take a moment to consider things before you reject them. When you pitch a horror movie and the executive says, “You know, you should really consider making that a musical,” your knee-jerk response is to say that it would never work. But guess what? Anything can work. Mixing the Civil War and hip-hop became the Broadway musical of the decade. Whoever would have thought of that? And imagine if someone had shot that idea down before it had a chance to live and breathe.

Assume the person you’re meeting with is smart and has that job for a reason. Assume you may not agree with all of their ideas, but at least they are worth considering. Assume your project, even one you’ve toiled away at for years, can always stand improvement—even if it’s a complete rethink from the ground up. Let’s say you wrote an amazing thriller with a male lead, but the studio is looking for something for Jennifer Lawrence and wants you to rewrite the lead as female. (You should be so lucky to have that problem.) As a rule, I never say no to a note, even if it seems to be a truly horrible one. I always say, “That’s interesting. Let me think about it.” And I do. Sometimes I come to the conclusion that it won’t work for the script, but usually I have the courtesy to walk the note-giver through what happened when I tried it and the dead end I ran into. And sometimes after they’ve heard that process, they have the fix that makes it work. Some notes I thought were bad turned out to be brilliant once I gave them a chance.

It’s nice to follow up after a meeting, even if it’s just to say, “Thank you for your time. I enjoyed meeting you.” For extra bonus points, send an email that follows up on the meeting in some way. For instance, if you mentioned a great TED Talk during the meeting, send the link. Now they have your email and a warm, fuzzy feeling about you.

When you go on a round of meetings in Hollywood, you start to feel as if you’re stacking up jobs left and right. You’re the next James Cameron, about to create your own empire. Reality check: You’re probably not. But meetings can be a little misleading. When people load you down with books, scripts, articles on your way out the door, they are not offering you a job. Know that they are giving that stuff to a healthy percentage of writers who walk through the door. It’s most likely a fishing expedition. They want to see if you will even look at the material. If you respond, do you have anything interesting to say? Definitely peruse the material if it interests you, and respond authentically. Sometimes it goes nowhere, but you’ve given an impression and you’ll be floating around in their minds six months later when the perfect project for you comes across their desk.

My last piece of advice may counter everything above: Don’t bullshit. If you have no interest in writing or directing Sharknado 5, don’t raise your hand. They won’t hire you anyway. They want someone who lives for those movies, whose passion is palpable. So figure out what you’re passionate about and lead with that. If they don’t jive with your passion, that’s fine. We can’t all be a love match. You don’t have to act or sound like Tarantino. If they want him, they will call him. Trust that your point of view is wholly unique, no matter what it is. Your passion is your best currency. (And if your father happens to be a rabbi, definitely mention that. People will remember.) MM

Jessica Sharzer directed the Sundance-premiering Speak (2004), and wrote the feature Nerve, which was released by Lionsgate in July 2016. Along with writing for and producing FX’s American Horror Story, she has adapted the YA novel The Young Elites for 20th Century Fox, as well as the upcoming musical Dirty Dancing for ABC.

Illustration by Jo Yeh.